This Black Girl’s Journey

Posted on in On Our Radar by Saeeda Hafiz

The Yin and Yang of Food

Mom’s African-American mantra for me was “Get your college degree and you’ll live a good life, not a life of struggle.” So I went to college and after graduation got myself a corporate job that paid nearly three times her single mother’s wage. I thought life would be easy. Ever since I was ten and Dad slithered out of his responsibilities I had been determined to create my own good life without his help.

My image of that “good life” was a classic corporate job complete with morning health club workouts alongside other businesspeople. Also in my mind the good life meant learning to prepare impressive gourmet meals with fancy wines and cream sauces—so I enrolled in a cooking school in a middle-class neighborhood. To my surprise the class where I ultimately landed focused not on gourmet extravagances but on clean eating. Far from rich sauces, simple whole grains, beans, tofu, tempeh, sea vegetables, and fermented foods were the ingredients we focused on, while integrating a variety of whole vegetables, roots, stems, leaves, flowers, and seeds. Most importantly, the instructor emphasized eliminating sugar and processed foods.

I diligently followed class instructions, learning to build meals from scratch. Dinners included black bean stew over brown rice, pressed cabbage salad, sautéed collard greens, and hijiki. Dessert options included gourmet baked apples without added sugar.

There I was, a 23-year-old corporate manager—“That Black Girl”—the Essence magazine version of Mary Tyler Moore, prioritizing career over marriage and family. One day on the bus commuting home from cooking class I found myself staring at my wet mahogany boots and matching burgundy gloves and Coach purse when the “ding” from the Stop Requested bell transported me back to a scene from my childhood. Tears crowded my eyes.

I am five years old. My father comes home from being out late. The door slams and just like the “ding” that started the Ali-Frazier fight I’d seen on TV, a ding inside my head signals that the fight in my house too is gearing up. All night I hear Dad beating Mom. The next day I see her black eye peeking out from behind her dark sunglasses.

As the bus approached my stop I pulled the cord—hard. “Ding!” Inside my head I yelled, “STOP I want to get off!” Upon returning to my apartment I cried even harder as I heard Mom’s voice ringing inside my head. “What are you crying for? I was the one who suffered all those beatings. Girl, you’re not one of these single black mothers raising babies. Just go on and be happy.” Of course I cried even harder, and began to experience a full-blown revelation—related to food!

yin and yang sign

I realized that I was experiencing the full power of a whole-foods diet and that my new way of eating, especially the non-consumption of processed foods and sugar, was unearthing a horrible past. I was detoxing and having flashbacks in the same way addicts and alcoholics do during withdrawal.

As my holistic health lifestyle classes continued, our teacher explained the Taoist Yin/Yang food chart and it made profound sense. To put it simply, every food and experience can be placed on this chart. Yin is an expression of contraction. Yang is an expression of expansion. My childhood environment had made my mind and body deeply contractive and I naturally sought foods—notably sugar—to push me in the opposite direction to feel centered again.

I hadn’t realized it but sugar made me feel normal, balancing my exposure to poverty and domestic violence, numbing the pain. My siblings managed their pain more extremely, with drugs and alcohol. Unfortunately, they became addicts. By applying the Yin/Yang chart to my food and life experiences I centered on foods in the middle of the chart and was able to integrate my painful past into a powerful non-numbing present moment expression.

By learning the basic energetics of contraction and expansion I came to understand how all elements feed in one direction or another. As an African American woman in transition, I was especially grateful to be able to use this chart to help navigate life’s terrain. Now I experience moving through the world more gently, examining what foods bring me closer to my centered-authentic self.

Following the Yin/Yang chart, I’ve better learned how to heal from past intergenerational trauma. When I asked my father about why he was an abuser, he answered that he had witnessed his father (my grandfather) abuse his mother (my grandmother). He talked at length about being an oppressed black man in America. Unwittingly, my siblings and I had entered into a succession of (ashamed) victims of previous victims.

The Yin/Yang chart has taught me how to eat foods that better prepare me for today’s struggles, helping me define the distinction between a meaningful life and a good life, as Mom aspired for me. How serendipitous that in my quest to outgrow the trappings of a disadvantaged youth I signed up for a status-promising gourmet cooking class only to find myself actually learning my greatest holistic lesson about upward mobility in a different context—that the power of food can create a healthier balance to heal from childhood traumas.

Now, to use Mom’s words, I can more easily say to myself, “Girl, you’d better go on and be happy.”

Saeeda Hafiz is a Bay Area yoga teacher, holistic health educator, and author of The Healing: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Yoga. She works for the San Francisco Unified School District sharing her wellness knowledge with diverse groups.

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